Friday, September 25, 2015

This Post Will Not Be Followed With a New #1


It wouldnt be accurate to say that the post-clone titles bombed.  I think “languished” would be a better term.  Most of the books were decent sellers, but Spider-Man still wasn’t competing with the X-titles, and there didn’t seem to be much enthusiasm from the fans.  What worked and what didn’t?




The Art
All of the artists assigned to the books in late 1996 would seem to be commercial draws.  Steve Skroce and Luke Ross were coming from the X-titles (okay, they did X-Man, but thats still an X-title), Mike Wieringo had done some fill-ins for the X-titles and had built a name for himself at DC, and John Romita, Jr. was a Marvel legend with lengthy stints on Amazing Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men, Iron Man, and Daredevil in the past.  Cracks develop early on however, with Skroce dropping out of Amazing a few issues in and Ross cartoony style not meshing with DeMatteis psychologically dark stories in Spectacular.  In addition, Wieringo seems to struggle to find a style that fits Spidey for a while there, and Romita’ title is given some extremely disappointing fill-in artists.  On any given month, the average quality of art in the Spider-Man books could only charitably be called inconsistent.  It’s a shame that the most consistent writer wasn’t paired with the most consistent artist -- why didnt Ralph Macchio pair DeMatteis/Romita together on Amazing Spider-Man?

The Villains
The Clone Saga concluded with the “shocking” reveal that the original Green Goblin, Norman Osborn, had been behind the entire fiasco.  And even though Norman apparently died yet again in the closing chapter, there was no doubt that he would be returning soon.  Marvel actually showed some restraint and waited a year before giving Norman his big comeback in Spectacular Spider-Man #250.  There is a sense that the creators were often spinning their wheels while waiting for Norman’s return.  Dr. Octopus was revived, Electro got a power-up, and the Chameleon fought off insanity long enough to learn Spider-Man’s secret ID, but none of those storylines were sold as Big Important Events.  It’s obvious that Marvel considered the original Green Goblin to be the villain with the most marketing potential, and to be fair, his return issue in Spectacular is executed very well.  

Within a few months, however, it’s clear that the creators have no real interest in doing Norman Osborn stories, or at the very least, can’t think of anything worthwhile for him to do.  He buys the Daily Bugle, threatens some cast members, and tries to sell “m’boy” as a catchphrase, but he doesn’t seem to do an awful lot.  The creators even seem reluctant to have him don the Goblin disguise again, leading to an utterly pointless mystery surrounding the new Green Goblin.  (I thought we were supposed to be psyched to see the original Green Goblin!)  The books have an awful lot invested in Norman’s return, and when that eventually flops, the dearth of credible villains becomes even more obvious.  Even when one of Spider-Man’s foes actually accomplishes something, like in the Chameleon story mentioned above, the story just exists in the vacuum of one title.  Spider-Man never seems particularly concerned in his other titles about this villainous loon learning his secret identity, and within a few issues, it’s even forgotten in Spectacular Spider-Man itself.

The Supporting Cast  
Everyone knows Spider-Man has the greatest supporting cast in comics, right?  So why is it that this two-year period brings us only one memorable storyline featuring a supporting cast member?  Inserting Flash Thompson into an alcoholism storyline probably isn’t the greatest use of Flash, but J. M. DeMatteis does generate a lot of credible character work out of the idea.  Yet, if you followed any of the other titles, you wouldn’t even see an acknowledgement of the ongoing storyline starring Peter’s oldest friend/rival.  Instead, each book seems to claim a supporting cast member or two and keep exclusive focus on those individual stories.  

Allowing every creator to follow the character of his choosing might seem like a nice way for each writer to put his unique mark on each title, but in practice, it’s a mess.  Peter Parker’s interest in the lives of Robbie Robertson, Flash Thompson, and Billy Walters seems sporadic at best.  And most of these character subplots are absolute duds.  Robbie’s conflict boils down to his wife nagging him into retirement…a misguided concept that drags on for months.  And the rich, new supporting cast members that the Empire State University setting was supposed to bring us -- do the names Shantal Wilsk and Marina Caches ring a bell?  No, of course they don’t, because they’re ciphers that no one ever developed into believable personalities.  

Speaking of ciphers, the issue of the Stacy family has to be addressed.  Added to the titles at the urging of editor-in-chief Bob Harras, but with apparently no guidance on what to actually do with the characters, the Stacys languished in the background for a few months and predictably contributed nothing.  Eventually, it’s simply declared that Jill Stacy is MJ’s best friend, although no creator seems willing to explain how exactly one explores a friendship with a piece of cardboard.  Paul Stacy is allegedly Peter’s academic rival, a role that serves no real point since none of the writers are invested at all in Peter’s college life.  And Arthur Stacy makes a few empty threats to investigate Spider-Man, a plot that’s referenced in a surprisingly great issue of Unlimited, and then pretty much disappears.  Marvel promised a revived focus on the supporting cast upon Peter Parker’s return, and this is what it delivered.

The Marriage
I’m not interested in debating whether or not Peter and MJ should be married.  Everyone has his or her opinion on this and it’s hard to see anyone budging by now. However, Peter and MJ are married at this point in the titles, and since Marvel has no nerve to separate or divorce the couple, then the stories should contain a genuine focus on the dynamics of their relationship.  And almost none of them do.  J. M. DeMatteis steps up once again and puts in a real effort, while Todd Dezago’s stories in Sensational occasionally hint at the fun, sexy side of their marriage.  To the other creators, the marriage seems to be a subject to be avoided at all costs, or an excuse for Spider-Man to endure another lecture from his unsympathetic wife.  More annoyingly, MJ’s personality shift seems to happen overnight with no real justification within the stories.  

The Status Quo
This era of Spider-Man begins with Peter and MJ returning to New York.  The baby, as far as they know, was stillborn.  Aunt May is dead.  They can’t afford a place in Manhattan so they live in Aunt May’s old home with MJ’s Aunt Anna.  Peter returns to work at the Daily Bugle.  Both Peter and MJ enroll at ESU and try to start their life as a couple over again.  There’s clearly an effort to go back to a situation that the readers are familiar with, while not outright pressing the reset button.  The lost baby is always a thorny issue, but there is the occasional scene that manages to broach the subject in a tasteful and poignant way.  Aunt Anna initially comes across like a replacement Aunt May in this situation, and never seems to outgrow the role.  (Anna’s considered such a nuisance by the writers that she goes several months at a time without even making an appearance.)  

Having Peter and MJ move back into Aunt May’s old place is an idea I’ve always liked, and it’s a shame that more isn’t done with the Forest Hills neighborhood.  The new neighbors introduced in Sensational seemed to have some potential as recurring characters, although we’ll never know what might’ve been.  The return to ESU always comes across as something Bob Harras thought was a great idea, but none of the people working day-to-day on the books had the slightest interest in.  There is the occasional “Chaos on Campus!” plot, but for the most part, the college is a background element that adds nothing to the stories.  The idea that MJ is suddenly desperate to study psychology also comes across as arbitrary.  The Daily Bugle makes a welcome return, although it’s hard to think of any particularly great stories that use the setting.  Jonah Jameson has his moments in Spectacular Spider-Man, but the grand mystery involving him and Mad Jack fizzles out in a, well, spectacular fashion.  

In retrospect, this setup should’ve produced several memorable stories.  The only elements that don’t fit into the “classic Spidey” mold are holdovers from the clone days that would’ve eventually faded away.  At some point, the status of Peter and MJ’s baby would have to receive a definitive answer, and someone needs to find a unique role for Aunt Anna; outside of those issues, there’s no obvious reason why this status quo shouldn’t work…unless you’re absolutely adamant that a) Aunt May shouldn’t be dead and b) Peter shouldn’t be married.

The End of Spider-Man (?)
From 1996 to 1998, the post-clone era usually remained under the radar.  As I mentioned earlier, not bad sellers, but certainly not great ones, either.  Perhaps the die was cast when Wizard (still rather powerful within the industry in the mid-90s) printed an article in late 1997 detailing the ennui that surrounded the Spider-Man titles.  In another piece from this era, Wizard stated its belief that Aunt May shouldn’t have been the one to die in Amazing #400…it should’ve been MJ!  Yes, that pesky marriage is the problem, along with a series of issues the magazine claimed were holding the titles back.  Wizard’s solution seemed to boil down to “go back to the Roger Stern days.”  Marvel was thinking retro, but not in the way Wizard probably expected.  (You can read the article on the "What Would Spidey Do?" blog. It's typical of Wizard’s writing of this era -- arrogant and ignorant simultaneously. I have a hard time making it through the piece, even though I agree with many of their points.)

Marvel tried to revive interest in the titles with two connected crossovers, “Spiderhunt” and “Identity Crisis,” but before the second crossover was even finished, the big announcement had been made.  The Spider-Man line was getting relaunched with a series of new #1s.  John Byrne was coming over from DC to reboot Spider-Man’s first year with Twice Told Tales (later renamed Chapter One), and Howard Mackie would be the sole present-day continuity Spider-Man writer.  The reboot/relaunch turned out to be a critical flop, and after an initial sales bump, the Spider-Man titles were no better off than before.  

The Chapter One/Next Chapter era was so hated for so long that memories of the preceding era seemed to fade away.  In most fans’ minds, Spider-Man goes from Clone Saga to reboot to J. Michael Straczynski, with no gap in-between.  There is an era nestled in there, though.  I wouldn’t argue that it’s best forgotten -- there are numerous stories in there that are true to the character and worth any fan’s time -- but perhaps it is easily overlooked.  Let’s face it, the titles rarely interacted with one another, there seemed to be no overall direction for the line, and no title seemed to generate a momentum that could last for more than a few issues.  It’s hard to name one element that defines this era, and even though individual story arcs can be singled out for praise, overall the Spider-line was so unfocused and aimless that it feels as if there’s nothing to hold on to.  It’s a quirky, brief blip in the character’s overall history, doomed to obscurity.

12 comments:

Unknown said...

I agree with most of what you said but I put much more of the blame on the editors.

Having re-lived these stories through your reviews the one thing that sticks out to me is the obvious “vision” Bob Harras had. Replace Aunt May with Aunt Anna and keep the marriage but otherwise restore the title to a 1970s era status quo. That means send Peter back to school, make him a freelance photographer again, make him broke, send him back to school, insert some random Stacys and so on.

The problem is the creators didn’t seem to be on board with the plan. So they’d follow it but also subvert it in every way possible. So Doc Ock comes back but the whole story is about gangs and ninjas (which turns it into a story that is neither a good Doc Ock story nor a good gang/ninja story). Or you have Peter going back to school but rather than acting young he ends up playing mentor to a young SHOC (which in turn makes him seem old).
I don’t think this was on purpose. I just think the creators had gotten into a mindset of moving forward during the clone saga. So once Ben was taken away they couldn’t help but try to move Peter forward. But that didn’t work with Harras’ vision of moving back.

Then you have Ralph Macchio.

Macchio is famous for being a hands off editor. But a strong editorial hand is exactly what the titles needed post-clone saga. Really, if anyone messed these books up it was Macchio. Almost everything you laid out here is at his feet. The books going in different directions, the poor writer/artist matches, the sub-plots with no firm resolutions, and so on.

In some cases it seems like fate was trying to send him a message and he just decided not to take the call. One example, I’m not sure Luke Ross was ready for Amazing but he was certainly better prepared than Bennet was at the time. Once it was clear Skroce was imploding and Ross wasn’t meshing with DeMatteis a change should have been made. Actually, I think a DeFalco/Ross pairing would have been good. DeMatteis has a consistent voice no matter the artist where as DeFalco is much better at writing to the artist’s talent. Pair Romita with DeMatteis and put Bennett on PP:SM with Mackie and that’s not a bad line up. But having the flagship title be the most artistically inconsistent is just amateurish.

j said...

This seems to be the around the time when Marvel started flooding the market with comics. Well, I guess they started in the early 90s but it was at least novel then. It has the effect of nothing mattering. Spider-Man is going on so many adventures a month, how can anything possibly matter? If he almost dies in 4 comics books a month everything becomes unmemorable. It's a problem that persists to this day. It's also why I lost interest in Marvel continuity somewhere around the mid 90s.

Matt said...

PART 1 IN A TWO-PART COMMENT

Excellent analysis, and I agree with a lot of what you say.

I've mentioned many times that I really enjoyed this era of Spider-Man as it was happening. 1996-97-98 would've been my senior year of high school/freshman year of college, more or less, and nostalgia definitely has a lot to do with this. In retrospect, I think I was more enamored with the status quo than the actual stories. I had been a Spider-Man fan my entire life, but had only been a regular month-in/month-out reader since around 1993 or so, and this was my favorite set-up for the character in that span: Married, living in Forest Hills, attending college, working for the Bugle -- it was a nice mix of the classic Stan Lee era I had read in reprints and the then-modern era I had grown up with.

I liked the addition of the Stacys to the supporting cast. I thought they were a great idea. You've shown the execution was pretty poor, but I feel like they're a really good concept which helps to tie Spider-Man back to that classic Lee/Romita period. I really think Marvel should've kept them around for later writers to work with, but they disappeared entirely when Mackie left a couple years into the relaunch. I think they could've fit nicely into the "Brand New Day" stuff, though by that point there was so much more wrong with Spider-Man that I'm not sure they would've helped.

I agree with Unknown -- Ralph Macchio deserves a lot of the blame for this era's shortcomings. I think he's a fine editor when he has a single writer who knows what they're doing and can be trusted to do their job without the need for a lot of inter-title coordination. He edited much of Gruenwald's CAPTAIN AMERICA, he edited Simonson's THOR, Nocenti's DAREDEVIL, and more -- all classic, beloved runs.

But he was not the right guy to edit a group of books starring one character. The Spider-Man family needed a stronger editorial hand at this point. Jim Salicrup had done a fine job of it in the late eighties/early nineties, but he also benefitted from only three titles with only two writers between them for much of his time. It was really after Salicrup that the interconnectedness became weaker (aside from the brief Clone Sage period where all the books became basically one weekly series for a year or so), but I think under Macchio it was at its worst. When you're talking about four titles with four writers, plus various mini-series, one-shots, etc., you need somebody with the editorial mentality of -- dare I say -- a Bob Harras to run things. People can say what they will about him, but I don't think it can be argued that the X-books didn't have pretty tight continuity when he was their editor. (Once he became the group editor and then the editor-in-chief, however, that tightness eroded considerably under Mark Powers.)

Matt said...

PART 2 IN A TWO-PART COMMENT

I also think Marvel could've experimented with a different way of running things at this point. It's something they tried years later with "Brand New Day" and it worked pretty well at first, before you got too many cooks in the kitchen: rather than having four writers, each assigned to his own title, I would've gone with the "writers' room" approach and had the four writers and their editor break stories together, then have each writer do a story arc across all titles, with input from the other three. So you'd have DeMatteis' Kraven story run through the four books for a month, then DeFalco's return of Doc Ock for a month, and so on. But the sub-plots could continue through all arcs by all writers so that even as, for example, DeZago was doing a random Looter story, DeMatteis would be able to insert some Jameson/Mad Jack scenes. This could obviously lead to artwork occasionally mismatched with the story at hand, but as you've said, that was already prevalent. Much as I liked a great deal of art from this period, I feel like getting artists who were a better stylistic match with one another could've helped to keep things cohesive.

Obviously this approach would require extremely strong coordination and a very hands-on editor to work, though. And anyway, it was probably too radical an approach for Marvel back in the nineties, when they were still doing things in a pretty traditional fashion. Heck, it barely worked during "Brand New Day". Like I said, that period started off pretty good, but they just kept adding writers for some reason, which I think muddled the more focused start they had.

But anyway... I'm glad you expanded your WEB series to cover all the Spider-comics from this period. Despite the flaws you've pointed out, I still have really fond memories of the period. As bad as it may have been, I think it was closer to the "real" Spider-Man than anything we've had in a long time.

Anonymous said...

I had no problem with the way this era began. Each book seemed to have its own identity. Dezago was doing a fun book in Sensational. DeMatteis' stories were more "mature" in Spectacular. Amazing was supposed to be the flagship title. And, Mackie was Mackie in PP:SM, while Romita Jr. was doing the artwork.
It worked well for me, because I could read Sensational and Spectacular, and enjoy those books, and avoid Amazing and PP:SM.
Eventually, the books all started to lose their purpose, and the era wound down to the point where I dropped all the Spider-books. Yet, I had no problem with what Marvel was trying to do at the beginning.

I don't like being forced to buy four titles a month, because you have to read every Spider-Man book every month, or you won't be able to follow anything. I didn't want to have to follow a Howard Mackie title.
I was a X-title collector, so I was used to being forced to read multiple series each month in order to follow a story-arc or sub-plot. This direction of Spider Man brought me back after the Clone Saga made me lose interest in buying Spider-titles.

Matt said...

Anonymous -- I guess it all depends on what you expect from a "family" of books. For me, I prefer serialization across all titles. I didn't read DC back in the nineties, but I understand that's how they ran their Superman stuff, with those little triangle shields on the covers to tell you the reading order throughout the year, in addition to the actual issue number.

I still think, in concept, at least, "Brand New Day" had it right: cancel all books, publish AMAZING multiple times a month, and plot it all via a "writers' room" where the writers trade off story arcs. I just would've taken it a bit further and had the writers collaborate a lot more on things like sub-plots.

I guess I understand the appeal of each title having an identity, but it's just not for me. In the eighties Jim Owsley tried to do that when he was the Spider-Man editor, even going so far as to give all the different series separate logos. I much preferred when Jim Salicrup took over and homogenized everything across the line (even going so far as to assign one single writer to both of the sister titles).

Jeff said...

I will say bringing in Paul Jenkins to clean up the mess of the Chapter One Era led to one of my all-time favorite Spider-Man runs. Jenkins is up there with the best for me.

Also, if I remember right, Wizard argued that Howard Mackie was the best writer on the books at the time.

Anonymous said...

Yes! Paul Jenkins brought me back to Spider Man once again, and I absolutely adored it. I hadn't enjoyed Spider Man so much since the 1970s stuff.
(I'm not quite that old, I was reading the Marvel Tales series in the 1980s.)

Matt said...

Jeff -- I thought Mackie was the best of the Spider-Man writers at the time, too. He had been my favorite Spider-writer going back to "Name of the Rose" in WEB. I think the reason is that while most of the others pitted Spider-Man against super-villains, Mackie mostly used gangsters and more "street level" enemies (plus Hobgoblin, my favorite of the costumed foes). Though nowadays, in retrospect, I believe my enjoyment of Mackie was due mainly to his artists -- Alex Saviuk on WEB and John Romita, Jr. on PETER PARKER.

Interesting you guys like Jenkins so much. Everybody seemed to love his Spider-Man back then. I just thought it was... okay. Certainly it was a breath of fresh air after Mackie's double-duty during the relaunch, but I was never any more excited for one of his issues than for one of Mackie's. But then, I've never looked at that run more than once back when it originally came out, so there's probably a lot I'm forgetting -- however my recollection is that Jenkins's stories generally felt too "quiet" and overall seemed unimportant to Spider-Man's ongoing life. Plus -- and I know this is exaggeration but it really is how I felt at the time -- practically every other issue seemed to be a sappy "very special story" about Peter remembering Uncle Ben or some other aspect of his past. In general, I think Jenkins just didn't do enough sub-plot stuff and intrigue for me.

But again, I may well be misremembering. At any rate, I recall that I really liked Mark Buckingham's art on the series.

Jeff said...

Matt - I would check out Death in the Family, The Hunger and Countdown if you wanted more action in your Jenkins's stories. The three of those are some of my favorite Green Goblin, Venom and Doctor Octopus stories, respectively, and are all multi-parters with some big consequences for Spider-Man.

PP:SM was my favorite book at the time, too. I was definitely influenced by JRjr's artwork, though.

G. Kendall said...

If I had to produce four Spider-Man titles a month during this era, I would've tried to hire as few writers as possible. One writer per title makes the line feel too splintered and unfocused, so ideally there would be two writers for the entire line. I'd also establish one crossover every quarter that only lasts one month -- this might seem totally arbitrary, but I think it would prevent storylines from overlapping, reinforce the idea that all four titles are about the same character, and require the writers to pay attention to subplots running in the other titles. Also, setting aside one issue every quarter wouldn't be a real distraction for the ongoing storylines, I think.
Regarding the artists, I would've gone with more of the pencilers on the periphery of the X-titles at the time: Steve Epting, Terry Dodson, and Bryan Hitch. Romita, Jr. I would've placed on ASM. I also would've done anything in my power to lure Tom Grummett away from DC.

Jeff said...

If I was the Spidey-line editor I would have tried to get Stern on a title by any means possible. The two stories he was involved with are the best ones during this era. Heck, team him up with JRjr again.

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